When his interpreter’s phone connection started to die midway through his Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada hearing Thursday, Mohammed Musah mustered enough confidence in his English skills to speak for himself in a do-or-die test of whether or not he deserves Canada’s protection.

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When his interpreter’s phone connection started to die midway through his Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada hearing Thursday, Mohammed Musah mustered enough confidence in his English skills to speak for himself in a do-or-die test of whether or not he deserves Canada’s protection.

It was either that or have his hearing postponed in an increasingly backlogged system with waits of up to 16 months for a day in refugee court.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSMohammed Musa is a refugee claimant and member of "Ghana Pavilion". His refugee claim was heard this morning. SANDERS STORY. Sept. 14, 2017</p>

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSMohammed Musa is a refugee claimant and member of "Ghana Pavilion". His refugee claim was heard this morning. SANDERS STORY. Sept. 14, 2017

Fortunately for the LGBTTQ* man from Ghana, he aced it.

"I’m so happy that Canada has accepted me," Musah said, his eyes filling with tears after being told he can stay.

The 28-year-old refugee claimant in Winnipeg was able to explain his situation and answer the questions of adjudicator Jodie Schmalzbauer in Calgary. After two hours of questioning by teleconference, she ruled Musah would be in danger if he’s returned to Ghana, where homosexuality is a crime.

Musah was part of the so-called "Ghana Pavilion" of eight asylum-seekers who wore pink "LGBTQ Rights Now!" shirts while circulating a petition outside Folklorama facilities this summer asking the Canadian government to urge Ghana to decriminalize homosexuality. Musah, who walked into Canada from the United States in July, is the only one of the eight to have his day in court.

His fellow Ghanaian petitioners — and other refugee claimants in Winnipeg awaiting Refugee Protection Division hearings — are being told it could be a year or more before their hearings will take place because of a growing backlog of cases.

Musah’s lawyer, Bashir Khan, said the refugee board recently informed him claimants in Western Canada waiting for protection division hearings can expect a one-year delay before appearing before an adjudicator.

The reason is the mass arrival of claimants from Haiti who have entered Quebec, Khan said. Their hearings are a high priority in the Vancouver office that serves Western Canada, the Winnipeg lawyer said, adding they will be doing many refugee claims by video conference with Quebec.

A senior spokeswoman for the board said she couldn’t comment on projected wait times for Western Canada, but nationally, "considering the current caseload, existing resources and projected finalization rates," it’s about 16 months.

"Some refugee claimants will wait a shorter time, while others will wait longer," Anna Pape said of the refugee board’s policy, planning and corporate affairs branch in Toronto.

"The current intake of claims for refugee protection is exceeding the board’s operational capacity, which is causing a growing inventory of pending cases. As a result, many cases must wait before they can be heard by an independent decision-maker," she said by email.

Long wait times to learn their fate can take a toll on asylum-seekers, Rainbow Resource Centre counsellor Melanie Leslie said. The registered social worker attended Musah’s refugee hearing to offer him support.

For others who are waiting months for a hearing, it’s hard not knowing when it will happen or how it will turn out, Leslie said. Feeling connected to the community can help people cope. For those who don’t feel connected, "It’s more stressful. They’re really struggling."

"It’s a lot of emotional stress," said Khan, who represents Musah and his fellow refugee claimants from Ghana. They can get work permits and qualify for assistance, but living in limbo is tough, especially for people who’ve been traumatized, he said.

Musah received his work permit three days ago, and plans to begin his job hunt in earnest now that his future in Canada is secure.

He quickly shared the news with his fellow "Ghana Pavilion" members.

"Thanks be to God!" Sulemana Abdulai shouted on the phone when Musah called him after his refugee hearing.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.